When states had established religions and all-powerful churches, the clergy could impose many indignities on their parishoners merely by asserting that it was “God’s will.” Our modern secular religion is the worship of markets as self-correcting, self-perfecting systems that merely demand that we all act in our own self-interest to produce an outcome that makes us all better off. Whenever corporations thrive by making us all worse off, we’re told to stop complaining, because it is the “will of the market” at work.
So it was that when the digital revolution arrived, the business priesthood told us that we must not be tempted by its promise of infinite distribution of all human knowledge at no cost. Any technology that let the “consumers” of information goods do more with the books, movies, games, and music they bought would not be a boon, because it would destroy the markets for media, including the markets that had us buying our music in a new format every couple of years, the markets that required libraries to re-purchase their patrons’ best-loved books when they wore out, and so on.
Despite the fact that no one ever went to a store and asked for a book that would wear out quickly or a music format that would be obsolete in a couple of years, we were told that the limitations of the physical world were, in fact, happy accidents of virtuous matter, whose limitations allowed for all kinds of “innovations,” like selling you an album on vinyl, then 8-track, then cassette, then CD.
Using digital to subvert this cycle of renewal – to allow instant, free access to all human culture for all humans – was a sin in market religion’s doctrine. But the priesthood did have an orthodox, virtuous use for digital: they wanted to use digital tools to enable new markets, markets that never could have existed in the world of dumb matter.
The problem with markets is that selling things is inefficient. There are so many people who don’t need the thing, just a momentary use of the thing: the right to read a book today, but not to own it forever; to use a snatch of a song as a ringtone, but not to put it in your music library; to pull a video clip out of a movie to use in your student project, without having to buy the movie.
Digital, the priesthood told us, could make all these markets – and more – a reality! Thanks to a technology called “Digital Rights Management,” sellers and buyers could negotiate a subset of rights and a reduced payment for same. In the same way that the humble mortgage could be spun out into a million “products” that investors could buy in the form of complex financial instruments, we could turn the unitary book into a thousand sub-books: the book you can only read on Wednesdays, the book you can only read while on an airplane, the book you can only read after the sun sets.
That’s not what we got, of course.
Today, four of the five big publishers sell all their books with DRM (the exception is Macmillan, whose Tor science fiction and fantasy imprint is DRM-free). These ebooks are like books, except that they are locked to the readers approved by the vendor who sold them to you (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.) and they can’t be given away or re-sold, and have little or no capacity for lending them out. In other words, ebooks are like regular books, only they do less.
Despite the fact that they do less, they don’t cost less. The restricted ebooks sold by Tor’s competitors – books that can’t be used with the reader of your choice, or sold, or lent, or given away – cost just the same as Tor’s unrestricted books.
In other words, we were told that we must reject the promise of unfettered digital in favor of locked-down digital, and in return, we would enter a vibrant marketplace where sellers offered exactly the uses we needed, at a price that was reduced to reflect the fact that we were getting a limited product. We got the limited product, all right – just not the discount.
The established religion of markets once told us that we must abandon the idea of owning things, that this was an old fashioned idea from the world of grubby atoms. In the futuristic digital realm, no one would own things, we would only license them, and thus be relieved of the terrible burden of ownership.
They were telling the truth. We don’t own things anymore. This summer, Microsoft shut down its ebook store, and in so doing, deactivated its DRM servers, rendering every book the company had sold inert, unreadable. To make up for this, Microsoft sent refunds to the customers it could find, but obviously this is a poor replacement for the books themselves. When I was a bookseller in Toronto, nothing that happened would ever result in me breaking into your house to take back the books I’d sold you, and if I did, the fact that I left you a refund wouldn’t have made up for the theft. Not all the books Microsoft is confiscating are even for sale any longer, and some of the people whose books they’re stealing made extensive annotations that will go up in smoke.
What’s more, this isn’t even the first time an electronic bookseller has done this. Walmart announced that it was shutting off its DRM ebooks in 2008 (but stopped after a threat from the FTC). It’s not even the first time Microsoft has done this: in 2004, Microsoft created a line of music players tied to its music store that it called (I’m not making this up) “Plays for Sure.” In 2008, it shut the DRM servers down, and the Plays for Sure titles its customers had bought became Never Plays Ever Again titles.
We gave up on owning things – property now being the exclusive purview of transhuman immortal colony organisms called corporations – and we were promised flexibility and bargains. We got price-gouging and brittleness.
Take textbooks: the price of college texts has been rising at an average of 12% per year, with textbook publishers extracting $3.5B/year from American students. The textbooks come with mandatory online resources, and logins for these have to be purchased anew every year, so even if you sell your old textbooks, the kid who buys them from you still has to buy an online login. Professors are offered substantial bribes to select the most expensive texts, and high-performance digital tools make it easy for publishers to make minor alterations every year or two so that earlier “editions” of the text are no longer in synch with the professors’ lesson plans, making used books effectively worthless.
Or libraries: libraries often pay higher costs for ebooks than they do for print books, and on top of that, publishers impose ridiculous conditions on the ebooks they sell to libraries, like making them self-destruct after a few lendings (Harpercollins) or just not making ebooks available to libraries at all until the hardcover is no longer a new release (Tor). Again: like print books, only worse. And more expensive.
Didn’t DRM get us ebooks for libraries in the first place, though? Well, it’s true that publishers were reluctant to sell to libraries until libraries started to use Overdrive and other DRM systems (paying for these eats away at libraries’ collection budgets, meaning fewer books, and less money for publishers and writers), but there’s no reason to think that dropping DRM would be a deal-breaker today. After all, it’s been five years since libraries stopped using DRM for electronic audiobooks – the most expensive materials that libraries circulate – and audiobook publishers are still selling audiobooks to libraries.
Even for streaming services – virtually synonymous with DRM – there’s no reason to think that DRM is why those services have customers. People don’t sign up for Spotify or Netflix to get their five (or fifty, or five hundred) favorite titles, which they plan on downloading in the first month and then quitting the service. People sign up for streaming services for convenience and recommendations and search, all possible with or without DRM.
Streaming services do depend on DRM: DRM is how Spotify stops third parties from making players that skip ads, and it’s how Netflix and Amazon Prime stop you from saving its Christmas movies to your hard-drive in July so you can watch them for free in December, when they become pay-per-view movies.
There’s a name for societies where a small elite own property and everyone else rents that property from them: it’s called feudalism. DRM never delivered a world of flexible consumer choice, but it was never supposed to. Instead, twenty years on, DRM is revealed to be exactly what we feared: an oligarchic gambit to end property ownership for the people, who become tenants in the fields of greedy, confiscatory tech and media companies, whose inventiveness is not devoted to marvelous new market propositions, but, rather, to new ways to coerce us into spending more for less.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.
This article and more like it in the September 2019 issue of Locus.
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